It wasn’t all that long ago that I first became aware of Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane and my immediate thought was, “I’m so in.” The trailer was absolutely spectacular and I could hardly stand the wait for this mind-bending psycho-thriller. Soderbergh has been the driving force behind many notable and award-winning films (Erin Brockovich, Traffic) so seeing that he was in the director’s chair only added to my excitement (though I missed out on Logan Lucky. Sorry about that!). I’m not sure how this one was off my radar so close to its release but it was a pleasant surprise for me. So, naturally, my local theater didn’t get it and I had to rush out of town in the face of an impending snowstorm to catch it. And, looky here; I did just that.
This particular film may be my biggest challenge yet in terms of discussing its creative merits without spoiling not only the narrative twists and turns but also the thematic aspects. In the film, Claire Foy’s Sawyer Valentini has just moved to a new city far from home in order to take advantage of a fantastic career opportunity and to distance herself from some serious personal issues. As she struggles to ingratiate herself into her new environment, she visits a psychiatrist to vent her troubles but finds herself involuntarily committed. Now, Sawyer must prove to everyone around her that she isn’t crazy, while everyone around her tries to convince Sawyer that she is.
Before getting into the analysis of the film itself, I have to address Soderbergh’s filmmaking techniques, here, as he not only goes low-budget but also gets downright experimental by filming this entire movie on an iPhone. And I have to say that it looks fantastic. Textures and detail really pop even as he enacts a gritty color palette and messes with the aspect ratio in a presumed effort to create a sense of discomfort and claustrophobia, just as Sawyer copes with throughout the picture. That’s just me speculating as Soderbergh’s motives are his own but, no matter why he filmed the movie this way, I wholeheartedly approve as it feels completely different from any other filmgoing experience that comes to mind and my eye was caught and held by the screen the entire time. I really hope this one gets a 4K release for home viewing.
Okay, I’ve stalled long enough from trying to determine how to give you a sense of what Unsane has to offer without ruining it for you. Hey, I know what’s easy to talk about: the performances! In her portrayal of Sawyer, Claire Foy has a tricky proposition; she must provide a performance that toes the line between being sane and being insane. There are a lot of subtleties that go into giving a single performance that could be interpreted in multiple ways, but she makes it look easy. And in the moments when subtlety is no longer called for, the gloves come off and Foy is pure nitro. Alongside Foy, Joshua Leonard is memorable as one of the orderlies, while Jay Pharoah is relaxed and natural as a fellow patient who also suggests he is being held against his will and Juno Temple is disturbing as another patient who very much belongs in the ward.
I have seen some trepidation online regarding the film’s is-she-or-isn’t-she-crazy premise, labeling it as a somewhat tired cliche. I don’t think anyone is going to argue that we’ve never seen that idea done before but – again, without spoiling anything (watch me tiptoe, folks. This isn’t easy.) – that concept is neither the true driving force behind the narrative nor is it the focus of any climactic reveal. The truth behind Sawyer’s mental state is firmly decided for the viewer by the time the third act begins. The remainder of the film then deals with the repercussions of that discovery and that is the point of the film.
And that is also what I unfortunately can’t delve into here, no matter how badly I want to. Even all of the marketing has gone out of its way to hide the actuality behind the events of the film as well as the film’s message, and a hearty thank-you and a clap on the back to the marketing department for making that a priority.
So, I can go into no further detail without ruining the experience for you, which I won’t do. I’ll say that the themes are multiple and all are socially relevant in our current culture. Some are more obvious while others are more subtextual but as long as the viewer is watching with their brain fully engaged, nothing will be missed. Unsane probably qualifies as horror, but not in the traditional sense. Many comedies use the “funny because it’s true” approach and in this film, Soderbergh applies that same line of thinking to a different genre, giving us horror that is “scary because it’s true”.
Unsane is the sort of film that true film lovers will want to support. It’s also the sort of film that progressive thinkers will want to support. I truly appreciate the visionary approach to creating this work, both from the technical point of view and also in the way that Soderbergh and the screenwriters, Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, use one problem in our society to make a point about another (much bigger) problem. But I want you to experience it for yourself, which is why you’ve been watching me dance like Sammy Davis, Jr., for 900 words, now. So do yourself a favor, put your MoviePass where your mouth is, and go support this groundbreaking, thought-provoking work of art.
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